NC State football coach Dave Doeren isn’t afraid to apply the conventions of another sport when it comes to red-zone offense.
“You’ve got to make your layups,” Doeren said after Saturday’s 24-10 loss to Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium.
Keeping with the basketball analogy, the Wolfpack had a perfect fast-break opportunity on their second drive of the game. A 24-yard pass to wide receiver Emeka Emezie — quarterback Devin Leary’s fourth completion of the drive — set up NC State with first-and-goal at the Bulldogs’ 8-yard line. On the next play, Thayer Thomas caught a screen pass from Leary, broke a tackle and ran down to the 2. The Wolfpack were 2 yards from tying the game.
Then everything started to go wrong. Leary hit Thomas on another screen, but Mississippi State snuffed it out. Safety Jalen Green and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes tackled the Wolfpack wideout back at the 5, setting up a third-and-goal play.
As the first-quarter clock dipped under nine minutes, NC State broke the huddle. Leary lined up in shotgun at the 9-yard line with two running backs in tow — Trent Pennix on his left and Ricky Person Jr. behind him.
Lined up at strong safety, Green performed his normal pre-snap assessment. Ten teammates did the same.
“At first, I was just going over my technique and my assignment, what I had to do,” Green said.
But with 10 seconds on the play clock, Leary took off running. The quarterback split out wide toward the left sideline, putting Person in the position to receive the snap out of the wildcat formation. Along Mississippi State’s sideline and on the field, silent alarms wailed while the cowbells clanged in the stands.
“You’re kind of on alert when they came out in the wildcat,” head coach Mike Leach said. “Just the fact that it’s wildcat alone means watch out for maybe a trick behind it.”
But the Bulldogs hardly had much time to process the deception. Barely more than two seconds after Leary exited the backfield, center Grant Gibson snapped the ball to Person.
The defensive line crashed. At the “Bulldog” safety position, Fred Peters stood at the 2-yard line, waiting to see what would happen.
Green handled Pennix, watching the Wolfpack running back break around the left side of the offensive line and toward the end zone. The Texas transfer safety picked up Pennix at the 3 and stayed tight to him as Person leapt in the air 5 yards behind and threw.
Defensive end Randy Charlton got to Person just as the junior released the football, a wobbly, high-arcing toss toward the end zone. Green boxed out his man — basketball, again — and snagged the football headed right to him, falling backward as Pennix tackled him to force a fumble that wouldn’t come.
“I just fell in the right place,” Green said.
Leach said Green’s interception was a product of doing all the right things as soon as the Bulldogs saw NC State unleash the wildcat.
“I thought we responded well to it, and after that, I think it was kind of reaction,” Leach said.
It dashed the Wolfpack’s best scoring opportunity for more than three quarters and gave the Bulldogs, up 7-0 on a Lideatrick Griffin kickoff return touchdown to open the game, the momentum they needed. NC State missed a 48-yard field goal on its next drive.
“We got ourselves in the red zone several times and got ourselves out of the red zone with bad plays,” Doeren said. “You’ve got to score points on the road when you’re playing against a team like this that can score and will score.”
Mississippi State added a 21-yard touchdown from Will Rogers to Malik Heath before the half and a 4-yard toss from Rogers to Jaden Walley in the third quarter.
Besides a 45-yard field goal in the second quarter, NC State didn’t score until it was far too late, as Thomas caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Leary with 1:06 to go.
But if the Bulldogs’ defense hadn’t held on the Wolfpack’s failed trick play, who knows how things might have turned out?
“It just wasn’t what I thought I was going to see offensively in this game,” Doeren said. “I thought we would play a lot better than we did.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.